Television was always my first love. Don’t get me wrong, I love great movies — it’s why I write this column. But most young kids don’t tend to see a lot of them, typically watching the same small handful of films over and over and over again. Case in point: I’ve seen “The Lion King” anywhere between 21 and 2001 times.
But as all kids soon discover, TV is different. In fact, it’s a wild smorgasbord bursting at the pixilated seams. And like emaciated gluttons at a buffet, when you get ahold of some new show that piques your interest, you devour it: between torrenting/streaming and this ridiculously astounding television-on-steroids device called Netflix, you can literally inhale entire seasons in a concentrated punch. My roommate did something like that with “Game of Thrones” — he watched the first season and a half in one day. He didn’t walk right for a week.
Great movies do the same thing. You see a film like “Amour,” and next thing you know, you’re sitting in the dark for three days questioning the concept of darkness itself. In other words, movies can really trip you up. But even the greatest ones rarely go past three hours: that’s like the magic number for the best epics.
Television, on the other hand, just goes and goes, sometimes stretching over hundreds of episodes, giving writers the space necessary to map out characters over multiple seasons. Ideally, this leads to one impressive arc after another. The end result, if it satisfies the trajectory of the series, is pretty much the same thing as that emotional bite found in the best films.
What’s surprising is how many people are suddenly beginning to figure this all out. “The Sopranos” was an early example, holding the torch for “The Wire,” “Lost,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and everything else out there that’s good — and believe me, there is a lot. These are real narratives — ones with larger, more meaningful purposes, far from merely episodic — that, for anyone interested in character development, are something of a Holy Grail.
But this style of television has its pitfalls, to be sure. As seasons pile up, arcs can get stale. Characters can become unbelievable. Stories can fall flatter and flatter. After all, there’s a reason shows don’t last forever. They have to end eventually, and it has to end the way the show deserves. “The Sopranos” and “Lost,” for example, captured huge critical success, but fell apart in their final episodes, leaving a genuinely sour taste in the mouths of its several doting followers.
There’s also the issue of commitment. An audience can forgive a bad first 20 minutes of a two-hour film, sure, but if you’re going to throw filler at us for the first third of a television series, good luck keeping us around for more. It’s a double-edged sword: television might have the room for boundless character and thematic exploration that films may lack, but at the end of the day, TV shows have to hold their own for far longer than a two-hour flick — instead, it’s a years-long battle.
At the end of the day, the reason we marvel at a film is because of its constraint. A great film is a right-handed haymaker that levels you with emotion — either comedic or depressed, or somewhere in between. But with the advent of on-demand, all-you-can-eat television, we’re faced with a new take on the moving image: a beautifully fluid prizefight. The audience tunes into each episode, week after week (or hour after hour, if you’re on a marathon), and gets swept back up in the ongoing journey.
Both films and TV tell similar stories, but the nature of the telling is what separates the two, and the latter certainly has much uncharted territory left to explore. Even so, I don’t think one is better than the other, nor do I think one has more clout. Ultimately, cinema and television are two halves of the same coin, and no matter which side falls on a given night, you won’t see me complaining.